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Thorson’s Throws: A blip, or not?

The novella version, really.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

This iteration of Thorson’s Throws is going to be a bit shorter because there’s just not as much to dissect. We didn’t really see any wrinkles in the passing game and Northwestern kept it pretty simple and quick for Thorson. There’s also the fact that this was Thorson’s worst game in a long time. It wasn’t the turnover-laden debacle that Akron was, but this was Thorson’s worst completion percentage since last year’s loss to Duke, and he lost a fumble and took a safety to boot.

The play-by-play, and the data:

Thorson’s Throws at Rutgers

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30-39 0 2 0 0 0 0 0
20-29 0 3 0 0 0 0 0
10-19 0 5 0 0 0 0 0
0-9 18 25 151 6.04 8.39 0 0
Totals 18 35 151 4.34 8.39 0 0

Let’s talk about the obvious here: Thorson didn’t complete a pass that traveled more than 9 yards past the line of scrimmage. Sure, he only attempted 10 of them, but that’s a pretty remarkable achievement.

“We saw through [Rutgers’s] tape, they were really good at defending deep balls,” Thorson said after the game. “And that was probably one of their strengths. And so we just didn’t have those plays called.”

Thorson and the Wildcats usually take a couple more deep shots per game than they did on Saturday, but it’s not entirely true to say they didn’t take any chances downfield.

The Rutgers defense did do a good job of taking the deep ball away, though. Thorson had one-on-one coverage twice on well-placed balls to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman downfield, only to see a Scarlet Knight defender make an excellent play to break up the pass.

The bigger issue was Northwestern’s inability to create chunk plays on shorter passes. One week after a track meet with Nebraska, Northwestern couldn’t find any space to run in Piscataway. The Wildcats only had one explosive passing play on the day, and it didn’t come until the fourth quarter, albeit at a very important time. It seemed like Rutgers was generally pretty content on letting Thorson find receivers close to the line of scrimmage and swarm to the ball.

Problem was, he was totally out of rhythm on Saturday. He started the game 6-of-6 for 37 yards, but over the next two quarters, he was 6-of-19 for 55 yards, with a fumble and a safety. That’s not quite Sitkowski-esque, but it was the worst we’ve seen Thorson play in a long time.

He inexplicably took a safety late in the second quarter to give Rutgers a 12-7 lead and he missed on a host of throws that he usually completes.

Thorson and Flynn Nagel have been excellent in the intermediate passing game, but the two struggled to connect at times on Saturday. Here, Thorson has a clean pocket on 3rd and 6 but just misses an open Nagel:

Nagel wasn’t blameless either — he had a rare drop in the second half, though the senior came up big with a 10-yard reception on 4th and 4 with the game on the line.

More troubling was that Thorson missed on simple timing routes, like this out to Cameron Green on second and short:

No. 18 just seemed a bit out of it at times. Part of it could have been NU’s reliance on the run. The Wildcats rushed the ball a season-high 47 times. After abandoning the run against Michigan State and Nebraska, NU found more success on the ground and kept it there when the game was on the line. You would expect NU to run the ball on its last possession to eat clock, but I was surprised to see the ball taken out of No. 18’s hands early on in drives when NU was still trailing.

Northwestern goes up against a below-average Wisconsin run defense on Saturday, so it could be more of the same against the Badgers. Still, it was troubling to see Thorson struggle against Rutgers, and he can ill-afford a similar performance against a team like Wisconsin.

Like I said, I’m not sure we learned that much about Thorson this week — it seems like just a blip on the radar. The next three weeks will reveal the true pattern.

Here’s the season-long data:

Thorson’s Throws, Week 8

40+ 1 3 77 25.67 77 1 0
30-39 3 15 116 7.73 38.67 1 2
20-29 5 18 125 6.94 25 3 0
10-19 24 52 452 8.69 18.83 3 1
0-9 144 202 1132 5.6 7.86 1 4
177 290 1902 6.87 11.01 9 7